Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was engaged in campaigns across the country. The organization was founded in 1957 with the help of clergy and activists from around the country, including Ella Baker. Baker was a seasoned organizer and had served as NAACP Director of Branches in the 1940s; Baker played a crucial role in organizing the SCLC. By 1960, however, Baker was the Executive Secretary of SCLC and bored, frankly: a desk job just wasn’t fitting for an organizer. February of 1960 changed everything for Baker. The headlines in the newspaper inspired her to launch a movement.
On February 1 four students in Greensboro, NC went to a Woolworth’s lunch counter and just sat down. They didn’t know that they were doing a “sit-in,” at the time. They thought it unjust that they could go buy school supplies but couldn’t sit to eat a hamburger. The students wanted change but they didn’t know how to go about it. They sat and asked for service, not sure what would happen next. The first day they just sat until the store closed: the manager at Woolworth’s didn’t know what to do, either. Woolworth’s had a heavy Black customer base and so the manager didn’t really want to arrest them. The students went back to campus and the next day more joined and even more, in the days to come. The papers began covering the events and that’s when Baker knew something had to be done.
She convinced Dr. King to put up $800 to fund the founding conference of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was held at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina during the Easter weekend of 1960. Baker took an active role in helping the students to organize but was conscious to make sure that the students led their own movement. Baker was a resource and guide but always allowed the students to run their organization. SNCC, in time, became a national organizing force that pushed the movement forward exponentially. From voter registration, protest activity and non-violent resistance, students in SNCC took the movement to new heights.
Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Congressman John Lewis, Julian Bond and Diane Nash are legends in their own right. All of them have one thing in common: SNCC. SNCC not only influenced policy around the country but also birthed some of the greatest leaders in world history. Each victory, each leader and every gain can be traced back to one phenomenal Black woman and her name is Ella Baker. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we should honor the women that have given life to the movement.